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You’re only getting the nice feedback (42floors.com)
150 points by jaf12duke on Nov 11, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 35 comments

Saying something more critical has some downsides and upsides.


* You could burn a bridge if you are not careful. It is a small world after all in certain domains.

* Open yourself back to criticism, person starts defending themselves, worse they go on twitter about it.

* You help them too much so now they compete better with someone you invested with. Telling someone they screwed up would be giving them an edge. Sometimes investors might not want that. It is better to provide dismissive or false feedback ("you guys are awesome, it is me not you, I just don't have time, keep working hard on this"). Basically give them false feedback so they don't realize how badly they are fucking up.

* It creates a negative social vibe. Some people are just averse to negative public display of emotions. It rattles their nerves too much, regardless of how it starts or who causes it.


* You get to feel better (this is the most important but people forget). You are a teacher giving feedback to an inexperienced person. It makes you feel good and smart. This is an egotistical reason to do it.

* You like the person so you want to help them. Maybe you hope they accept the feedback, fix the issues and you come back to you. Note this involves believing in them to start with. This is an altruistic reason.

In general the downsides are more risky than the upsides. So people will choose not to give negative feedback.

I think this is really spot on. When my startup in 1997 started selling things to a Japanese partner one of our investors remarked that 'we will consider it' was Japanese for 'no' and 'we will seriously consider it' was Japanese for 'as long as I draw breath this won't happen.' But navigating that positive based feedback could be very useful. Discussions in hypotheticals become more common and with our partner a very popular technique for providing negative feedback was to discuss this other person they were working with who was having issues (sort of like telling the doctor your "friend" has these symptoms but is too shy to come in and talk about them.) By keeping the conversation very firmly and plausibly directed elsewhere, the downsides were mitigated.

That investor was spot on. The best signal you can get from a Japanese business partner is their eagerness to go out for a night on the town :)

In Japanese, "We will consider it" or "kentou shimasu" (検討します) literally means to investigate and attack from its Chinese roots and is a way to signal distance.

If you are in early stage talks and if they are serious you will get a request to sign an NDA or some form of binding contract.

I think that's great advice and great way of giving feedback.

I'm actually not sure how to apply that advice in real world situations. Giving negative feedback usually triggers aggression, and group reprisal, while switching to "hypotheticals" and "friends" makes it sound as if i'm talking down to them, which also triggers aggression and group reprisal. So, I normally look for the socially anonymous outlet for my opinion, like downmoding the "me too" and "thanks" comments, and then move on with my life. Because, while the comments are not hateful or disruptive, they don't add anything to a discussion.

I usually preface this with the usual: take this with a grain of salt, try to ask them more questions, etc. I've found people are more willing to listen to feedback if you take the time to understand the idea. I also profess any biases I have up front that maybe relevant. If they still get upset, it's probably just best to move on anyways. There's lots of people out there.

>Some VCs said, “We like you, but we need to do some more due diligence on the space.” Then they asked us for a bunch of hard-to-get stuff – market research, traction metrics, and better proof of growth. But even when we got them this information they still didn’t say yes.

That one is the classic "weak leader" no. I had this happen to me while I was still in college. Where I went everyone had specific rules for each class, where the seniors had the most leniency, but were still not given real freedoms.

As part of a negotiations class, myself and three others had to create a topic and then negotiate a deal with someone. I chose to negotiate more freedoms for the seniors with one of our top officials. We did a ton of background research on why and how and implications etc... We gave our pitch, answered lots of "tough" questions and afterwards asked "So are you willing to make the change?"

The response was a fantastic display of political wriggling but ended up with basically this response: "I think this is great you guys, but here is what I need you to do so we can make this happen. I need a legal review from 4 different legal disciplines, then I need to see a study of expected outcome effectiveness for your proposal, then you will need to do a poll of the student body to see if they would accept it. Only then, will we be able to make a truly INFORMED decision."

I saw the NO from a mile off that day, so I said thank you, got my A in the class (Despite not getting to any BATNA) and went on with my life having seen what a disguised NO really looks like. I am confident even if I had done all that work the answer would have still been no, I just would have put hundreds of hours into getting a firmer no.

That makes a lot of sense and is a valuable story.

Lots of people find it easy to be "nice" to others when there is nothing on the line - no money, no reputation, nothing at risk. Why say something critical and create bad feelings when you gain nothing by it? Surveys and market research get skewed for this reason.

You always get more honest and accurate feedback when you actually "ask for the sale". It doesn't even have to be a literal "sale", it could be a change in a policy, as in the story above.

(n.b.: BATNA is 'best alternative to a negotiated agreement', which is exactly what it sounds like. Think of it as the negotiating equivalent of the 9-5 you can always go back to if your startup fails.)

Yep, in this case there was no negotiated agreement and no alternative so it was just a hail mary "negotiation." In contrast, other groups negotiated things like the cleaning of a microwave between roommates, so we were given a little slack for formal technique because of who we were pitching to.

In that case the BATNA was for things to stay as they were. There's always a BATNA, the point is to know what that is beforehand just so you don't end up doing a deal that actually has a worse value than no deal.

You may be mistaking BATNA with ZOPA (zone of potential agreement). There wasn't any ZOPA here apparently.

There's another reason to know your BATNA, understanding the leverage you have, if any. If the only BATNA you can think of is no more and no less than the continuance of the status quo, then there's a good chance you have none.

I think we're saying the same thing. If the status quo is 100 your BATNA is by definition >= 100. It may be 120 though, if there's some other thing you can do that improves your situation if you can't get the deal done. So if the deal is worth 150 to you and the other party tries to negotiate for 110 claiming "it's still better for you than the status quo", knowing your BATNA allows you to say "nope, I'll do X and get 120 without the deal".

Sure, it's the same principle, but I was thinking more in the sense of knowing whether you're wasting your time or not. Asking for a raise, for instance. If your job is commoditized and there's no difference between you and someone else doing it, that means the balance of power in the exchange lies with your employer and your BATNA is to just keep working there at your current salary. You have no leverage.

The CFO at the company I work for tried to jerk me around by saying they wanted to put off bringing me on permanent, a $400 a week difference, for months. The company's BATNA in this situation was even worse than the status quo. It took them four months to find me and I've been doing great. I made some token efforts at negotiating, then started playing hardball by calling the staffing agency and threatening to leave. They folded practically instantly.

How true. Also, most people, in my experience, are unable or unwilling to accept frank feedback. They will get their feelings hurt, argue, get angry, or just block out what you're saying. (At least this is true in my experience in the US - perhaps some other countries have a more direct culture, e.g. Germany/Israel/Russia?)

So if you can project your ability to calmly receive frank feedback, others may be more likely to tell you what they really think.

Just about everything in this post seems to assume that investors are the center of the entrepreneur's world when it comes to feedback and validation. That's a real problem because if you have domain expertise (which you should), there's a very good chance that you will know more about your market than 9 out of 10 investors you meet.

Once you recognize that most investors will be capable of offering little in the way of meaningful (read: specific) feedback, it isn't hard to identify the source of the most valuable feedback: target customers.

The good news: more often than not, it's fairly easy to locate potential customers who will be eager to look at what you have and give you an ear-full of honest, informed feedback at no cost. Some might even go on to become your first customers, but even if none do, I can guarantee you that you won't walk away from 52 meetings with potential customers wanting for real feedback.

I believe this was regarding feedback about why they were choosing not to invest.

What I'd like to know is how to get 52 meetings.

* Can you get 52 VC meetings in the valley, cold? Is that possible without being part of an accelerator, or knowing influential people?

* If your personal network doesn't flower into a bunch of meetings, then where do you get more?

* Is it events and meetups, cold emails, making noise online, some combination of these?

It's actually none of those.

The best intros come from entrepreneurs that recommend a startup to their own investors. It's much easier to get meetings with entrepreneurs, especially if you approach the non-yet-famous ones. Often, just asking for advice works.

It's harder if you don't live in a startup hub, because you'll meet fewer fellow entrepreneurs socially.

What I'd like to also know is:

Would you rather get 52 meetings with VC's or 52 meetings with potential customers who are willing to tell you their pains, frustrations and problems?

Cold - no. Luke-warm with a reasonably decent looking product or idea - yes. Image you have something that seems well made or in a hot space, then imagine you spend 6 months showing people in your social network, going to meetups to grow you social network, etc. The valley is small, and if you're doing something that looks even barely interesting most people will forward you along until you land at your 50 meetings. I'm not saying it's a good idea, arguably you could waste a lot of time on this just like Jason did, but you can do it.

Even outside of the VCs, it's true that startups generally don't get to hear negative feedback on their idea from anyone. On the whole, people are really nice. No one wants to say "I don't think that'll work because X" as, in other other sphere, it's just a really horrible thing to say to someone. Startups actually need to hear that stuff though. It's not horrible to tell a startup you think there's a barrier to their success; it's damn useful information.

It's a shame too, because I'm sure there's a lot of startups that could have used some honesty from the people around them early on to modify and pivot and consequently not fail.

Actually, entrepreneurs receive tons of negative feedback on their ideas. Regardless of the industry, most senior leaders in that industry will proclaim that some innovation won't work (otherwise, it would've already been tried). At FlightCaster, we received loads of strategic feedback--all of which was fairly wild speculation.

Challenging an entrepreneur on the validity of an idea is actually a form of nice feedback. It seems like it's saying, "I believe in you but I have found some concrete roadblock that will cause this to fail." That's almost always bullshit, because startups change forms throughout their life, shifting strategies and tactics to avoid such roadblocks.

Really, that feedback is saying "I don't think you have what it takes to get around roadblocks."

Maybe its just lazy. You ask for feedback; they think of challenges and tell you. Who wants to spend the time digging into YOUR space to figure out detailed analysis? Easier to say "Competition, IP required, time-to-market too long" because they're always an issue.

I understand why this can happen, because I've given people constructive negative feedback a couple of times, when they asked for frank feedback.

Guess what happened?

They became defensive, trying to explain to me why my feedback was wrong. One person stopped discussing their project with me entirely, and some others just avoided me after that.

Why go through all that when you can just tell them their baby is beautiful, give them some token softball criticism that they can say they're already addressing and move on with your life?

It's a good filter though. Not to say success is binary, but I use this as a way of finding who to keep in touch with at meetups and the like. Not to say that I enjoy being rude to people or feasting on people's tears, but I like it as a way of seeing who's been through the startup process before and who will actually stick around. Being able to take criticism in stride is key.

There is now a term for this (can't recall who coined it): "grin fucking". The desire to be nice ends up fucking over the founder in the long run.

loved the piece, just one part kind of got me:

You simply need to become more formidable.

I think VCs may be good at judging confidence, but a wide array of stereotypes and predispositions come to mind when picking whether someone with no track record will make it. I really don't get the feeling that VCs in general are good at picking the formidable founders, and in the end, really just place bets on the guys who someone else already bet on. I think YC does a great job of picking founders who have the potential to be formidable and allowing them to raise after the program.

I really don't get the feeling that VCs in general are good at picking the formidable founders

The sentence you are responding to is the whole point of the article. VCs don't have to be good at picking formidable founders. (I don't know whether they are or aren't.) They just have to believe that they are good at it - and they do.

I recently moved to the VC side from software engineering. I was sure that the biggest value that I'd have for startups would be my engineering experience, but what founders seem to appreciate most is direct feedback. Even when saying 'no', I try to add some useful bullet points about what my fund's concerns are, what we'd like to see in order to invest in a latter round, any oddities that I noticed on the website or mobile app, etc. Founders seem to really like that -- especially product feedback.

This is also true in romance and friendships. It's a fairly severe faux pas to actually tell someone why you rejected them - very, very few people take this sort of honesty well.

Recently read "The Mom Test" which had some good advice about how to avoid the positive feedback that people only give you because they want to spare your ego or whatever. Not exactly applicable to this post, but still some pretty relevant ideas in there which I've made good use of.

Jason is absolutely crushing it with these posts. I wouldn't be surprised if he's made partner at YC; either imminently on a part-time basis, or otherwise once he's exited 42floors.

So what are the real check points:

* Track record?

* Strong verbal presentation? (Confidence, ex-football lineman, what?)

* Connections?

* What else??

* Something else?


When I ask people for feedforward about public speaking and three people tell me I should use humor more, I can figure out they don’t think I’m funny

I've had a mixed bag of reactions from this. Just as some can figure out that I don't think they are funny, there will be others that immediately get defensive: "what? you want me to be funnier? are you saying I am not funny?" - they may not verbalize this, but you see those thoughts going through their mind.

This brings us to the big flip side to feedforward: it doesn't inherently answer why. I know that I learn most when people can pinpoint a specific issue in past and make me aware of the issue. Often, once you've convinced me of the issue, I'll either know the fix or will ask you for one. But to simply give me the fix("hey! use more humor!") is less helpful to me if I am unaware or not fully convinced that I am not funny.

Edit: Upon more careful reading, I see that your feedforward is premised upon you asking for feedback about yourself where as my post comes from the angle of unsolicited feedback. Two different beasts! My bad.

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